A roman à clef is a French term for a “novel with a key,” a novel that is purportedly about fictional events and fictional people, but that is readily decipherable to those in the know – with the key, as it were – showing them inside information into real people and events. Isabel Allende, in her first book, does this, delving into the history of her home nation of Chile, ending with the atrocities of the Pinochet regime that ruled there from 1974 until 1990. She does so through the lens of two fictional families: the del Valles and the Truebas. It is a true epic, following the matriarchal line through three generations of women, living during the turbulent Twentieth Century as Chile developed from a poor post-colonial country, into a modern state under the harsh control of a military junta. Click through for my full review.
The House of the Spirits begins in the early twentieth century, when young Esteban Trueba is trying to make his fortune working the mines in the north of Chile so that he can marry the woman he loves, Rosa del Valle. Before they can marry, Rosa is poisoned and dies. Esteban retreats to the mines, and the del Valle family moves forward, Rosa’s younger sister refusing to speak for several years. She is also a clairvoyant, and hence something of an embarrassment to her family. Ten years after Rosa’s death, she begins to speak again – it is to tell her family that she is to be married. Esteban has returned, and he decides he wants to marry the younger del Valle. Thus begins the story of the Trueba women, as Clara takes his name, and begins a matriarchal dynasty.
The novel is full of richly detailed characters and strong women, from Clara’s clairvoyant ethereality, to Esteban’s sister Ferula’s earthy matron; from the ministrations of the del Valle servant Nana, who raises several generations, to the idealistic Blanca, and her equally idealistic daughter, Alba, Esteban’s daughter and beloved granddaughter respectively. The story is theirs, told partly from the meticulous notebooks kept by Clara, begun when she refuses to speak, and finished by her granddaughter Alba, who records the tragedy of the military take-over of her country in the 1970s. Loving them, aiding them, and often opposing them, are the men of the book. Esteban Trueba is the most central to the narrative, being the husband of the original storyteller, and the grandfather of the woman who puts the whole story together. He is a man capable of great passion, both in love and war, and it leads to his gradual decline and alienation in the domestic sphere, at the same time that it leads to greater and greater success in the public. On his hacienda are the three generations of Garcia: Old Pedro Garcia, Pedro Segundo Garcia, and Pedro Tercero Garcia. Respectively, they act as savior, foreman, and traitor to the hacienda and its patron, and each loves a Trueba woman, although only Tercero acts upon it, being the spiritual and only true love of Trueba’s daughter, Blanca, and the father of Alba. Esteban Garcia, the bastard son of Trueba and Old Pedro’s daughter Pancha, further links the family, and becomes perhaps Trueba’s most tragic crime as his rape of the peasant woman has an evil echo down through the generations, with a price that must be paid many times over.
House is infused with a sense of magical realism that doesn’t overwhelm or take over the narrative, and a sense of generations passing and interconnections that show how tightly woven is the tapestry of life. Actions taken without thought at a young age – a pubescent prostitute given a loan, a bastard child sired on a peasant via a violent rape by Trueba, the son of a villa foreman pushed into a life of vagabond artistry – have far reaching and unforeseen consequences, sometimes decades later. And as in life, most of these consequences involve paying a price for old debts left uncollected. Most of the story takes place in a fictionalized Santiago, with large portions set at the Trueba family hacienda of Las Tres Marias. It deals with the modernization of this unnamed South American country, the rise of Marxism among its disillusioned poor and peasant classes, and the gringo-funded military coup that derails the dreams of everyone, including those that conspired for it, such as Trueba himself.
This is a powerful novel. It is also a very dense read. Magda Bogin’s translation captures the complexity of inter-generational conflict and connection, but the text-rich pages can be a little daunting; some paragraphs run for several pages, meaning that reading this book is a commitment not to be taken lightly. I recommend approaching it with the understanding that it is best grasped in small pieces. My usual reading technique is to sit down when I have a couple of hours, and read until I tire. With The House of the Spirits, I found a better approach was to read fifteen to twenty pages, and then allow them some time to digest, to percolate. The book deserves respect and a careful read; it isn’t something to be rushed through, but to be savored.
Steve’s Grade: A-
This epic story of three generations of Trueba women tells the story of a country just as much as it tells the story of a family. It is an incredibly intricate tapestry of a novel that merits reading and careful re-reading. One of the finest examples of South American magical realism.